'We want to heal, and she won't let us': Family, prosecutors again seek 'justice for Rhoni'
On vacation this week with family and friends around his Florida home, Thad Reuter can't help but think about how his sister, Rhoni, and her daughter, Skylar, who would be 13, are missing from their close-knit family's gatherings.
Rhoni Reuter was about 7 months pregnant on Oct. 4, 2007, when she answered the door of her Deerfield condo shortly before 8 a.m. and was immediately met with gunfire.
"Her arms had holes in them from the shots because she wanted to protect the baby," Thad Reuter says of his older sister.
Two of the bullets struck and killed the unborn baby, according to evidence in court. Hit multiple times, the mother-to-be was executed with a final and fatal shot to the back of the head.
"My father called me on the phone," remembers Thad Reuter, who was working then at Land's End headquarters in Dodgeville, Wisconsin. "He was crying and explained that Rhoni had been killed, and I literally dropped the phone."
That pain, while never going away, seems fresh again with news that Marni Yang, the woman convicted in those slayings and sentenced to two consecutive terms of life in prison, is seeking a new trial.
"It just pulls the scab off. It never gets to heal," says Thad Reuter, who refuses to speak the murderer's name. "She shot my sister, Rhoni, and her unborn daughter, Skylar. We want to heal, and she won't let us. She's making us relive it again and again and again."
Yang's attorney, Jed Stone, argues that DNA found at the scene and other evidence suggests someone else could have been the killer and raises questions about the validity of recordings of Yang talking to a friend in an Arlington Heights restaurant. Former Chicago Bear Shaun Gayle, who was dismissed as a suspect during the investigation, was the father of Reuter's baby and also dated other women, including Yang.
In a recent letter sent to news reporters, Thad Reuter complained about not being kept "in the loop" about upcoming hearings. Reuter was pleased after officials from the office of Lake County State's Attorney Eric Rinehart called him on Tuesday. Initial hearings have been postponed because of the pandemic.
"Our office has kept Marni's brother, Thad, updated on all developments in this important case," Rinehart said in a written statement. "Our sympathies, condolences, and loyalties remain with Rhoni, her family, and her friends. I leave it to the defense attorneys to characterize their own expectations about their own motions. We will respond in court through our attorneys and with our pleadings. Our focus will be to get justice for Rhoni."
Yang, who gave a jailhouse interview to ABC's "2020" last year from prison, says police manipulated her children and that she fabricated her statements in those secret recordings played in court.
"I took the first shot," Yang says to her friend on the recording. "I remember screaming because at that point, I realize we are at the point of no return and I just started emptying the clip."
The first time the Reuter family heard the tape was in the courtroom.
"She was doing this screaming as she went down, and then she took one good kick at me," Yang says of the pregnant mom.
Reuter's father, Doug, died in 2018, and her mother, Landa, doesn't like to talk about the murder. "Mom has had reporters call her, and she'll call me crying," Thad Reuter says. He says his sister had been involved with Gayle for 18 years and that Gayle had been to the family home in Potosi, Wisconsin, and met Rhoni's parents. But it bothers him to see her identified as simply the girlfriend of a football player.
"She was the fun aunt," says Thad Reuter. He and his wife, Anna, used to love the way Rhoni was with their kids, Blake, now 30, and Brei, now 25, and with the family of his brother, Wayde.
"She always made sure to come over and spend time with them. She loved to come back to Potosi for Christmas, their birthdays, Easter," says Thad Reuter, adding that his family also visited her in Deerfield. "The kids just adored her. She was a loving aunt, sister, daughter and friend. Always very giving."
They planned a phone call every Sunday, and Thad Reuter still remembers when Rhoni, who was 42 when she was killed, told him she was pregnant.
"I can't relate how joyous she was," Thad Reuter says, noting his sister read books about how to eat healthy for a baby and already had bought some things for Skylar. "She wanted to be a mother her whole life."